Modernity. This word has for long been associated with all things positive. It’s something communities aspire to, it implies progress, it’s the way to go. On a personal level, the word often goes hand in hand with the notion of freedom, of leaving old and suffocating ways of life and relegating them to the past. But as we keep learning, we’ve now also come to realize that our pursuit for modernity often comes at a price. Not one that directly affects our finances, but rather through its repercussions that will eventually get to us in more ways than one.
Our insatiable demand for all things “modern” has put great stress on the environment, something that has by now been well-documented with effects people all over the world have to face with an increasing frequency and intensity. As the brute forces of nature disrupt our lives more and more often these days, many of us seek alternatives to the life we know in order to prevent future generations from living on a planet that is no longer livable. And this is how our attention switches to small communities across the globe that are still practicing traditional ways of life with minimum impact on the environment. We learn from them and make changes in our own lives.
On Java alone – the world’s most populous island – pockets of such communities can still be found across its length. Although some are more isolated than others, they all have one thing in common: they put a great emphasis on preserving their traditions, wisdoms that had been taught by their ancestors and carried on for generations, and this often involves environment protection as one of the core guiding principles. Just outside the city of Garut, situated in a verdant valley that hosts probably some of the most fertile land on the island, lies such a village called Kampung Naga.
One morning during our stay in Garut, James and I set off for a half-day trip to Kampung Naga, some 30 kilometers away from our hotel. I drove along the picturesque road that cuts through the lush Ciwulan Valley, roughly following the twists and bends of the namesake river. This wouldn’t be my first time to the village, though, as more than two decades ago when I was still in high school I came here with my parents, uncle and aunt (who were visiting from Jakarta), and my cousin with her then-boyfriend who flew all the way from Belgium for a holiday in Indonesia. However, the timing of our visit wasn’t ideal. Due to that day’s packed schedule and my cousin’s limited time, we had to squeeze in Kampung Naga when we could, even if that meant going there right before dark. I don’t remember much except for the stairs that took us to the village, and the small mosque at the heart of the community that was lit by nothing but a few oil lamps.
About one hour after we left our hotel, we arrived at the parking area near the village – much more spacious than how it was on my first visit. Initially, I was thinking of going down to the village ourselves, but a person who approached us as soon as I parked the car convinced us that it would be wiser to go with a local guide since he could tell us what could and could not be photographed in the village. A man, probably in his 40s, who was wearing a black shirt and pants with a traditional Sundanese headdress then appeared from a nearby guard post. Pak Aji (pak/bapak is an honorific term used in Indonesia to address a male person who is older than you) introduced himself to us in a very gentle manner.
Soon afterward, we followed him to the start of the stairs while he began telling us about himself. Born in Kampung Naga, he had to leave the village and moved beyond its perimeter after he got married since the number of houses in the core settlement area must remain the same: 112 modest and uniform dwellings, no more, no less. His eldest brother, however, still lives in the village as the first-born child in a family customarily inherits the house. Passing us were families who are still tied to the village, some of them bringing baskets of rice that were slung onto their back with a piece of cloth. “There will be a ceremony in the village today,” Pak Aji explained, “that’s why you see all those people carrying rice which will later be blessed.” We slowly walked down the steps, 444 of them to be precise according to our guide. “In the past there were 300ish steps. But many visitors complained that they were too steep. So, we made some changes.”
After descending from the final step, Pak Aji led us to the village and pointed out a volleyball court that is a new addition to the community. “That’s why I don’t recall seeing it on my first visit,” I said to him. “The local government helped with the reclamation of this bend of the river to provide more land for us,” Pak Aji explained.
A few meters later we walked along a dirt path with prolific rice terraces sitting to our left. “We plant two types of rice here, a local variety and another one what we call ‘Segon’ rice.” Later research brought me to an article that explains the history of the latter whose name was derived from Saigon. In 1915, the Dutch East Indies colonial administration decided to import rice from the southern Vietnamese port city (which at that time was controlled by the French) due to disruptions of rice production in Java. Pak Aji then described to us the differences between the two: the grains of the local rice are more ‘hairy’ and more difficult to separate from the husk, while those of Segon rice are easier to dehusk. How they are harvested is also different: while a sickle is used for reaping Segon rice, the local variety must be cropped using an ani-ani, a small knife inserted in a flat wooden bar which itself is joined by a handle in the middle (here’s a link to a photo to give you a better idea of how it looks). The latter tool allows farmers to harvest each individual plant as opposed to harvesting in bulk. Pak Aji added that there are also differences in how they pound the rice, depending on the variety. But all this hard work results in something the villagers can be proud of: they are rice-sufficient.
As we entered the village, Pak Aji walked us through narrow alleys between houses, enough for two adults to pass by. Each house is built using natural materials: while the walls are made out of woven bamboo, the roofs are composed of layers of dried leaves of a local tree and thick ijuk (black fibers procured from a specific palm species) on top of it which can last up to 25 years before a replacement is needed. Each house is raised a few centimeters above the ground, creating a hollow space that is utilized as chicken coop. On the outer walls of some houses, a small basket is hung to provide hens with a safe place to incubate their eggs. What I also noticed about this layout is it allows neighbors to interact with each other easily, something that has become a rarity among city dwellers like me – although my introverted side does prefer some reasonable distance from the person living next door.
Pak Aji kept walking through these narrow alleys which to me felt as if we were getting deeper and deeper into a maze, then suddenly we reached the end of this section of the village, an open space where the sun shone directly above us. We took a few steps to reach the upper part of Kampung Naga which happens to be where our guide’s brother lives and where Pak Aji took us next. He entered the house through the kitchen and signaled us to follow him. Inside, his brother’s wife was steaming something (probably rice) over a wood-burning traditional stove. Meanwhile, what looked like a stir-fried rice noodle dish was already cooked and sat inside a wok placed on the floor. He conversed with his sister-in-law in Sundanese then pointed at one corner of the kitchen for us to sit down, cross-legged. He brought forward a small basket filled with parcels of snacks individually wrapped in banana leaves. “It’s called pipis,” he told us as each of us took one and unwrapped it. Made from steamed rice flour with a shredded coconut and palm sugar filling, this simple snack reminded me of something slightly different I grew up eating. By this time, Pak Aji already knew that I could speak Sundanese, but he kept using Indonesian so that James would understand (our guide might have assumed that he was Indonesian, though, not a foreigner).
Over pipis and hot unsweetened tea, the soft-spoken Pak Aji told us more about life in Kampung Naga. “The elders reached a consensus not to allow electricity in this village because if that happens, those who have money will start buying electronic devices and the gap between the rich and the poor will be visible,” he paused and quickly added, “and when there is a gap, there will be conflicts.”
“But now some of us do have smartphones,” he mentioned something I had observed since we started our descent to the village, as if he was reading my mind.
“Then how do they charge their phones?” I inquired.
He chuckled. “They will have to go up [the stairs outside the village] to do that.”
Although I can see why this ban on electricity is put in place, I also perceive the locals’ pragmatism in life. They find ways to embrace modernity as long as it doesn’t fundamentally go against the guiding principles of the village that have been adhered to for generations.
“Whenever someone gets married in the village, the neighbors will bring [uncooked] rice to the host, while the host provides [cooked] rice for the neighbors to eat,” Pak Aji mentioned this custom of sharing among the villagers, another example of how keeping a harmonious and peaceful society is paramount in Kampung Naga.
Our guide then switched the topic to himself, particularly his own experience working far from the village where he was born.
“I used to work at a restaurant in Jakarta in 1987. But I couldn’t stand the mosquitoes!”
We all laughed since we know all too well how nasty those annoying bugs can be, especially in hot places like the Indonesian capital. And for some reason, they love sucking on James’s blood – put him in an outdoor space anywhere in Jakarta and chances are he will get bitten by a mosquito in under a minute.
“In Kampung Naga, we are expected to tend to our paddy fields. But we are allowed to find work outside our village – at a supermarket, for instance,” Pak Aji explained to us, probably after sensing our bewilderment when we found out that he had lived in Jakarta, a world away from this quiet piece of land.
“In the end, the key to life is having good control of ourselves,” he concluded. “As humans we always have desires. But we should have control upon them.”
Control of ourselves, it seems, is something we humans unfortunately often lose. Give it ample time and multiply it by billions (that’s how many there are of us now), the effect is planet-changing. But it also goes the other way around. When given enough time and done by millions of us, changes toward the right direction can produce a significant impact. It’s interesting to see what Kampung Naga will be like 50 years from now. Will it still be an oasis of an alternative and slower lifestyle which puts harmony with nature at its core? or will it be absorbed into the mainstream way of life? I’d love to see a world where we practice more things like what the people of Kampung Naga have been doing for a long time, because to me that’s how the future should look like: us, Homo sapiens, being in harmony with nature and being kinder with one another.